@bionerd23 rescuing rationality from the suits

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Bionerd23She looks a little like Noomi Rapace playing the legendary Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Not quite so tough, but not someone to mess with. Still, it takes more than a punk hair cut to make a real toughie. In one of her latest YouTube clips, she’s in a state of panic in the back of a minivan whimpering in fear and busily checking the doors and winding up windows. “Oh sh.t, it’s coming, I don’t want to die, it’s coming … f..k!” the voice quivers and the fear is palpable. “this sh.t is dangerous, he’s going to kill you.”

She’s in one of the scariest places on the planet. A place most people wouldn’t send their worst enemy to. But moments before she’s been wandering around like a kid in a candy store with an infectious sense of wonder, happiness and excitement.

The young woman is @bionerd23, a German geek YouTube flicking science student, and she’s at Chernobyl wandering around in the debris from the 1986 steam explosion which blew the top off one of the nuclear reactors and changed the course of history. Without it, more countries would have followed France and rolled out nuclear power and been generating electricity for 70 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour instead of the 850g that is typical in a non-nuclear country like Australia.

@bionerd23 has made a series of youtube clips in Chernobyl. Not your usual “me in front of the fountain” shots, but “Here’s me eating apples off abandoned trees 4km from the Chernobyl reactor” and “Here’s me finding a piece of the graphite core moderator spat out when the reactor exploded in 1986 … wow … look at my Geiger counter maxing out!.

So what’s frightening this radiation warrior?

A fox. This isn’t a red-riding-hood wolf, this is a fox. If you aren’t small and feathery or furry, then a fox is a cute creature with a big bushy tale and come hither eyes. “Wouldn’t you just love to pat me!”.

The facts are that @bionerd23 is behaving pretty bloody rationally because she’s far more brain than brawn … despite the haircut. Foxes carry rabies, Ukraine is a rabies hot spot and healthy foxes don’t normally approach in the middle of the day. If you aren’t vaccinated against rabies and you are bitten and infected, then you will die unless you can quickly get proper treatment … a post-bite vaccination plus some high tech supplemental treatment. Rabies kills about 50,000 people a year globally, which is more every year than the Chernobyl accident has killed in close to 3 decades. At a rough estimate, rabies has killed about 1.4 million more people over the period, but hasn’t changed the course of history.

So @bionerd23 is behaving quite rationally by hiding in a minivan and closing all the windows at the approach of a fox.

By comparison, what are we to make of the on-going evacuation around the Fukushima reactors in Japan? Radiation expert Malcolm Grimston, from Imperial College London recently described this evacuation as “stark raving mad”. All that it takes for anti-science lunacy to have horrible effects is for people with knowledge to speak so quietly that their noises aren’t heard over the nutter dummy din. Malcolm Grimston isn’t the first to criticise the evacuation, he’s just done it a little more bluntly.

But, you may ask, surely the Japanese Government had expert guidance from it’s own experts and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)? Well I asked IAEA what they told the Japanese Government and they replied in typical bureaucratic double speak:

… IAEA is not an international nuclear regulator; that is, it does not make or enforce safety rules. Therefore, the Agency is not in a position to instruct or order or comment upon the actions any Member State chooses to take. (email: Greg Webb, Press and Public Informatin Officer, IAEA, November 2013)

Eventually, after more requests for information, they pointed me to their Criteria for Use in Preparadness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency. These guidelines are pretty clear and if they had been followed, it’s obvious that the forced evacuation of 120,000 wouldn’t have happened and wouldn’t be continuing. It’s doubtful that even a temporary evacuation of anybody would have happened. This evacuation killed people, caused suicides and continues to disrupt and devastate lives. It’s architect, ex-Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was in Australia recently and lauded by more than a few Green Parliamentarians. Of course he wears a suit and doesn’t have @bionerd23’s punk hair-do … or her brains.

What this German student lacks in media polish is more than compensated for in brains and commonsense. In another clip she buries herself in radioactive sand at Guarapari beach in Brazil. This is a popular tourist destination and in some places its about 10 times more radioactive than the peaks reported on a recent ABC Catalyst program about Fukushima radiation. That program reported hot spots of 5 to 7 micro Sieverts per hour. How did Catalyst‘s Mark Horstman put these numbers in context for his viewers? He could have told them that 5 micro Sieverts was 10 times lower than the level at the popular Brazilian tourist destination of Guarapari beach, instead he told them that it was “50 times the maximum dose rate considered safe for the general public”. Guarapari isn’t a cancer hot spot, and nor is Ukraine. Bionerd23 isn’t suicidal, just numerate and knowledgable. In fact the Ukraine cancer rates is 192 new cases per 100,000 people per annum, much lower than the 323 per 100,000 in Australia. We have far more obesity, BBQs and red and processed meat. An unhealthy lifestyle if far more dangerous than something like the Chernobyl exclusion zone or even rabid foxes.

We can contrast this young German woman with smooth ABC journalists like Mark Horstman or Mark Willacy. Her logic and science is consistent with the IAEA experts and the outspoken Malcolm Grimston of Imperial College in London; their logic is not.

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16 Comments

  1. Hi, Geoff. This article, like most from you, is factual and persuasive. To a point.

    Well done, thus far.

    You then displayed your true intent. Readers who were convinced by the first 90% of your article about the futility of evacuations and fear mongering in general read that the primary objective of the article isn’t about radiation at all – it is yet another chapter in your anti-meat story.

    Was this what our young lady German biologist friend was saying? No, it was not.

    The story about a German biologist was essentially a Trojan horse concealing another anti-meat rant.

    Bionerd23’s message has been lost.

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  2. @singletonengineer: 1100 word article with one line about the cause of high cancer rates and the article is an “anti-meat rant”? I think not. I didn’t even mention chicken, I mentioned only those meats which have been causally linked to cancer by the cancer equivalent of the IPCC (the World Cancer Research Fund). If I was wearing my animal rights hat, I’d be talking about factory farmed chickens. But I wasn’t and didn’t. I had a person criticise GreenJacked recently and she seized on a single line I made about prehistoric people living short lives. 110 pages and that was the line that set her off and gave her a reason to get stuck in. Oh well.

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  3. I agree with the thrust of this. But where do you get the statistic that Chernobyl has killed 50,000 in the last 30 years? This may be fewer than the number of deaths from rabies. But if true, it’s not very reassuring about radio-active leaks! My impression is that some estimates are far lower.

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  4. I think there is something fishy with the comparison of cancer rates in Ukraine and Australia.

    I mean, Ukraine is not exactly known for its healthy lifestyle (e.g., more than 60% of males are smokers, as compared to Australia’s less than 30%). Less than 15% of new cancer cases in Australia are bowel cancer. Even if we assumed that all of them are caused by obesity and red meat consumption, we have 275 cases per 100000 that have to be attributed to other causes. This is still much more than Ukraine’s total reported rate.

    Are you sure the difference is not more due to differences in diagnosis and reporting (Australia has much better health care system) or average age of the population? Sorry for ignoring the main portion of the article and focusing on this relatively minor point, I completely agree with the rest.

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  5. I don’t mind the remark about red meat.

    The part about Fukushima evacuation troubles me. The linked IAEA document says (Table 3, page 11) that if 100mSv in first 7 days is projected to be exceeded, then sheltering and evacuation is advised. Similarly, if 100mSv per year is projected to be exceeded, only temporary relocation is advised.

    Wikipedia article summarizes some measurements that were taken during the accident:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiation_effects_from_the_Fukushima_Daiichi_nuclear_disaster

    Many measurements in the vicinity of plant have shown much higher radiation levels than 100mSv per hour, let alone week or year. So it’s clear that some evacuation zone was required.

    Ground based and aerial measurements show wide area of 2.17-12.5/mR/hr, which would translate into more than 100mSv per year, so at least temporary relocation seems to perfectly follow IAEA guidelines.

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  6. @zdenek: I agree entirely that cancer comparisons are indeed complex and it’s good to see somebody thinking about the numbers. The numbers I cited are age standardised which is supposed to deal with differential age structures of populations and the Ukraine life expectancy is lower. The big point is that widespread radiation contamination simply isn’t an issue of any consequence. It’s not reflected in any major statistical measure of health but obesity, inactivity, red and processed meat are all BIG determinants of health problems … from the major to the minor. The one that I didn’t mention is what the experts call “adult obtained height” … tall people get more cancer than short people. The November edition of Australasian Science has an article about this because the mechanisms are fairly well understood now … but very complex. The anti-nuclear movement uses cancer to frighten the hell out of people and it works because the actual causes of cancer don’t get a lot of air time. When you give them air time, there’s always someone who’ll complain about an “anti-meat rant” :) … note that I’ve never had anybody complain about an “anti-fat people rant” when I mention obesity or “anti-couch potato rant” when I mention inactivity. But mention meat and people get very defensive and lash out. There’s a big psychological literature about such reactions.

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  7. @sandy: I never said Chernobyl killed 50,000. I said rabies kills that many per year and that’s more than have been killed by Chernobyl. I don’t know what the toll is. In some ways its a silly question … apart from the thyroid cancers and the direct accident results, it didn’t kill people but it might have shortened a few lives. The atomic bomb survivors had an increased cancer rate, but the median loss of live was 2 months … http://bit.ly/1AUa5T1 The psychological trauma, on the other hand, with its consequence health impacts will have been much, much bigger but totally unnecessary. In a newspaper article somewhere I read, Robert Gale (super expert) talks about counselling workers at Fukushima … frantic with worry as they chain smoke through a pack of cigarettes as he’s trying to give them the facts.

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  8. What a breath of fresh air!

    This post, and the videos on which it is based, are fun, disarming, and very informative.

    (After watching the apple video, I’d love to have a serving of radioactive German pork.)

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  9. The death toll in Fukushima prefecture from the earthquake and tsunami was about 1600. The death toll from the Fukushima evacuation, to save people from radiation poisoning, was about 1600. The death toll from radiation was 0. The expected future death toll from radiation is 0. The 1600 deaths from the evacuation can be blamed on the hysterical anti nukes (Caldicott and NRC Chairman Jaczko) and their media lapdogs.

    Post tsunami deaths due to stress, illness outnumber disaster toll in Fukushima

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  10. Pingback: Fixing Chernobyl | Nucleare e Ragione

  11. Bionerd23 is a super hero. As to the cancer rate comparison, isn’t skin cancer the major cancer in Australia? And while it is life style related it has nothing to do with red meat or radiation. So if you discount the Australia cancer rate by the skin cancer rate, how does the comparison look.

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  12. Of the age standardised 323 cancers per 100,000 per annum in Australia, 34.9 are from skin cancer … leaving 288. Skin cancer is about 4 per 100,000 per annum in Ukraine. … so ignoring skin cancer the comparison is ~ 288 (Aus) to 188 (Ukr). Skin cancer (by which I mean melanoma) is #4 in the cancer incidence scale after prostate, breast and bowel, but it’s less deadly than (in order of less to more deadly) ovarian, pancreatic, bowel, prostate, breast and lung. (Data: Globocan).

    Around Australia and ignoring age standardisation, skin cancer rates vary enormously … 89 in NT to 23 in Tassie (per 100,000 per annum).

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